Bullying is a hot topic of discussion from the playground to the schoolroom to the workplace. For professionals working with children there are two foci – the bully and the bullied. For a parent, it’s hard to find yourself standing behind either child.
I’m not a psychologist and don’t evaluate traditional “bullying” situations in practice. However, I do evaluate situations of child on child sexual abuse. I wondered about how a professional conducts an evaluation of a bullying situation. Is bullying behavior a cry for help? Where does this behavior come from?
I turned to Dr. Jen Hartstein who, ironically enough, I stumbled upon while trying to acquire her amazing website’s internet domain name http://www.drjen.com - a good one for Dr. Jens like us!! What a great stumble it was - before I get to her interview let me share a bit about psychologist Dr. Jennifer Hartstein:
Dr. Jennifer Hartstein is a child, adolescent and family psychologist in New York City, an Adjunct Professor at Ferkauf Graduate School of Psychology, part of Yeshiva University, in the Bronx, NY and a contributing psychologist for CBS’ The Early Show. Dr Hartstein works with children, adolescents and their families who have a wide range of psychological diagnoses. She has received intensive training in adolescent suicide assessment and has specialized in this population for several years, using a variety of treatment approaches, including Dialectical Behavior Therapy (DBT). Dr. Hartstein has published and presented on teen-related issues, and has been asked to speak as an expert on a variety of psychological issues in print and on television and radio.
Here’s our Q & A
Q: What is bullying and why do kids engage in this behavior from a psychological perspective?
A: Bullying is defined in most arenas as repeated exposure to negatively directed behaviors, involving some imbalance of power. It can involve physical actions, such as hitting, tripping, physical altercations, verbal, including name calling or threats. And, today, with all of the technology, cyber-bullying, which consists of threatening texts or emails, negative or hostile comments on social media sites, or fake pages set up to put down another person.
There are many reasons that children bully. Some do it to feel powerful or to create a sense of control in their environment. Others do it in retaliation for bullying they themselves have experienced. Another reason children do it is to "fit in." They believe they will have status or be part of the group if they bully others. Often, bullies lack the ability to empathize with their victims, making it more challenging for them to stop as they do not realize the impact they have on another person.
Q: So, a child BEING the bully may be a call for help?
A: Being a bully is as problematic as being the victim. If one's child is bullying, he/she may be communicating a bigger problem. Parents are often embarrassed when they find out that their child is the bully...there is far less sympathy and support. Rather than deny the problem, it's time to step in and really talk with and support your child.
Q: As a psychologist working with children & families, can you give some clues to parents about detection of bullying behavior - when YOUR CHILD is the bully?
A: Firstly, don't ignore the problem. It is important to acknowledge that it is happening and to discuss it with your child. Also, check what behaviors you engage in at home. Bullying is a learned behavior. Are you modeling this type of behavior at home? Secondly, be involved. One conversation is not enough. Demanding that it stop is ineffective. It is important to be involved, to talk with your child openly and to really listen to why the behavior is happening. Thirdly, teach (and discuss) what kinds of behavior is expected and appropriate. Be sure to reinforce when you see your child being kind and compassionate. Teach empathy and provide opportunities for cooperative activities. For younger children especially, engage your child in some sort of activity that will foster the ability to care for and interact with others.
Q: And how would you approach this with your child? Would you involve the school?
A: It is difficult to discuss this topic with your child. And, most likely, your child will initially deny it. Don't accept the first answer and stop the discussion. Open the door to talk about it and keep talking about it at all times. Try not to be accusatory or judgmental (even though these might be things you are feeling). Sometimes the school must be involved. Your child is at school much of his/her life, and the school can provide important information about the behaviors. You want the school to know that you are addressing the problem and working to help your child. Sometimes, the problem is bigger than you may be able to handle on your own, and you may need to involve professional help: an individual therapist, a social skills group, or the like.
Q: When and how to seek professional help?
A: Research has shown that bullies who do not get help are at greater risk for incarceration. Therefore, the need to get support and help is even more important. Often the first place to ask for a referral is with your pediatrician. Your pediatrician will often know therapists in the community that can help your child.
Q: And how to involve the parent of the bullied? Do you meet together as a group? What do you suggest? What if the bullied child's mom approaches you?
A: Apologies can get you far. It is always challenging to address the negative behavior, especially when your child has potentially hurt another person. It may be smart to have a meeting with the children and the parents. Discuss with your child what will happen, what he/she wants to say, and how you hope the meeting with go. It's important that your child be ready to offer a genuine apology. If not, the meeting is not going to be helpful.
Q: How to monitor if the bullying behavior continues or improves?
A: This is one of the ways that the school can really be helpful. They can help to see how behaviors change and improve. Also, it is key to reinforce the behaviors that you want to see increase. When you see your child doing kind things, make sure to praise it and provide positive feedback. The more you reinforce it, the more likely the behavior will continue to increase.